It’s Literally Impossible to Afford Rent on the Minimum Wage

Even modest rental housing is now out of reach for millions of full-time workers — and the pandemic has made an already bleak situation even worse.

A new report estimates that in 2021, workers would have to earn an average of $24.90 an hour to rent a two-bedroom home and $20.40 an hour to pay for a one-bedroom rental. (Goh Rhy Yan / Unsplash)

What does spending the week toiling away at a full-time job get you in the way of a place to rest, relax, and spend your downtime? In the popular consciousness, the idea persists that full-time work usually comes with at least a bare minimum of comfort and even a bit of disposable income. For millions of American workers, however, even the former is often out of reach, and wages must be spent near-exclusively on life’s necessities. Chief among those is housing: usually people’s largest expense and about the most rudimentary need there is.

The answer, then, to the question of what full-time work gets you these days is bleak: As the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s new report “Out of Reach” explains, it’s now quite literally impossible for all but a very few working full-time for forty hours a week to afford even a modest one-bedroom apartment.

Using a statistic it calls the “Housing Wage,” the organization’s calculations estimate what a full-time worker has to earn in order to make rent without spending more than 30 percent of their gross monthly income on housing costs (a general standard for housing affordability used by the federal government). In 2021, it estimates, workers would have to earn an average of $24.90 an hour to rent a two-bedroom home and $20.40 an hour to pay for a one-bedroom rental — figures which have increased from $23.96 and $19.56, respectively, since pre-pandemic times a year earlier.

As a result, it is impossible to afford even a single-bedroom suite on the minimum wage in 93 percent of America’s counties. Two-bedroom accommodations are basically out of the question.

(Patrick Perkins / Unsplash)

In fact, the Housing Wage required for a two-bedroom is, according to the report’s findings, “some $17.65 higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and $6.12 higher than the national average hourly wage of $18.78 earned by renters.” In ten states and Washington, DC, the two-bedroom housing wage is now over $25 an hour.

The upshot is that millions of workers must work extra shifts to make rent, expending precious hours just to earn subsistence — sometimes the equivalent of an entire second full-time job — and spending absurd portions of their wages on housing. As the authors explain:

The average minimum wage worker must work nearly 97 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom rental home or 79 hours per week to afford a one-bedroom rental home at the average fair market rent. In no state can a person working full-time at the federal minimum wage afford a two-bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rent. In only 218 counties out of more than 3,000 nationwide can a full-time worker earning the minimum wage afford a one-bedroom rental home at the Fair Market Rent.

As is so often the case in America, housing precarity is disproportionately experienced by black and Latino workers — members of both groups being more likely to earn less than white workers and being forced to spend a greater share of their incomes on rent as a result.

All in all, the report offers an astonishing snapshot of the deep inequity at the heart of America’s economic system — one so hierarchical by design that it compels millions of people to take second jobs or extra shifts just to keep a roof over their heads. Absent a massive overhaul that shifts both wealth and power toward workers and renters, this bleak status quo is unlikely to change.